A report from the recent Digital Hollywood conference held (strangely) here in New York perfectly captures the challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties surrounding the ongoing process of audience evolution.
As this report illustrates, television industry executives are only just beginning to systematically understand the relationship between traditional measures of audience value, such as audience size and demographics (i.e., basic exposure), and emerging measures of audience value that often are oriented around various forms of online participation (tweeting, favoriting, blogging, etc.). But what does seem to be clear at this point is that there does not appear to be a very strong relationship between these two representations of audience behavior. That is, online participation and involvement do not seem to be very good predictors of audience exposure, though at this point all involved recognize that there hasn’t been enough systematic research examining this relationship, an observation that echoes a point I emphasized in my previous post.
It’s interesting, though, that within the context of this report, the focus of all involved is still on audience size, and the extent to which online discussion and participation can enhance audience size. In many ways, this represents the common tendency amongst industry stakeholders to cling to traditional analytical and strategic approaches, even in the face of dramatic change. As I talk about in Audience Evolution, the future of the audience marketplace lies less in the realm of audience size and demographics and more in the realm of alternative sources of audience value such as recall, engagement, participation, etc. This is not to say that audience size and demos are obsolete or irrelevant; only that they are going to be a component of a more sophisticated, multi-faceted approach to understanding and valuing audiences.
So let’s assume for the moment that systematic research ends up showing us that television audience exposure and what we’ll call here online audience invovement are not strongly correlated. This of course means that these different measurements are most likely tapping into completey different concepts. There is the possibility that the flaws in the existing Nielsen ratings system are leading to a misrepresentation of how many people are watching each program — in which case measurement error could be the source of the disconnect. Of course, that measurement error could just as easily emanate from the systems that are used to capture online discussion (it’s really interesting how little discussion/analysis/critique of the methods being employed to capture and quantify online discussion and activities has taken place, particularly given the fact that these methods are in their infancy).
But perhaps there’s a limit to how much these measurement systems can be improved (the efficacy of all measurement systems is limited by the revenue potential of the markets that they serve). Or perhaps these different measurement systems are genuinely tapping into different concepts. If this is the case, then what remains to be seen is the extent to which advertisers embrace these newer measurements as genuine indicators of audience value.
Of course, you’re probably thinking that for that to happen, there needs to be a mountain of evidence that these measures are significantly related to product purchasing behaviors. The flaw in this line of thinking is that, if you look at the history of the marketplace for media audiences (which I get into a bit in Audience Evolution, as well as in my previous book, Audience Economics), you find that there was never all that powerful a body of evidence supporting the value of audience size and demographics. It was a convention that developed, was embraced to the neglect of other available alternatives, and became institutionalized. Only now are technological and economic changes afoot that are powerful enough to force a reconsideration of this long-institutionalized approach to audiences.